**UPDATE 04/06/2012: Ben Coltrin, the Developer of Custody X Change, contacted me by email to ask questions about this review and improve his product. Its great to hear from a legal software developer who’s interested in improving the product even after its enjoyed some success. I’ll be writing a further review of this product in the coming weeks.**
As clients prepare to deal with a child custody issue we often advise them to keep a journal of their interactions with the other parent and the child. Its often helpful to have a record of possession and the typical conflicts that surround pickup and drop off of the child. There are several software and website solutions available to assist professionals and parents in maintaining such a journal. I downloaded what appears to be one of the better products, Custody X Change, to give some insight on journal keeping and to review the product. Remember, this is written from a family law professional’s standpoint, but I am happy to answer any emails or comments about the product from a parent or another professional.
To be clear, I have three needs in mind for custody software and my review will be an examination of how closely Custody X Change meets those goals:
- I want software that will give my client a reasonably accurate calendar of all his/her periods of possession until the child turns 18.
- I want a way for clients in high conflict cases to be able to keep accurate effective journals of their interactions with the opposing party and the children.
- It provide a valuable product and should save me time, thereby saving my clients money.
I did not purchase the full version; this review is based entirely on the 30-day trial version available at the website. Here is a tutorial video that will help you understand some of what I’m talking about below.
I am a Texas family law attorney so I assumed the best test for the software would be how it handles the Standard Possession Order. The Standard Possession Order is a statutory parenting plan and, along with joint managing conservatorship, it is basically the default parenting plan here in Texas. Even when we make a custom parenting plan the Standard Possession Order is often the base from which modifications are made. If custody software can’t handle the Standard Possession Order there’s no point in a Texas attorney using it.
The Standard Possession Order has some basics provisions: The custodial parent has the child at all times not specified in the order. The non-custodial parent has the child each Thursday from 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm and every other weekend. More specifically, the non-custodial parent has the child from the first, third, and fifth Friday of each month, beginning at 6:00 pm, until the following Sunday at 6:00 pm. The non-custodial parent can also designate 30 days of extended possession in the summer. If they do not give timely notice that period is set from 7/1-7/31. The custodial parent can get one extra weekend each summer and another extra weekend during the non-custodial parent’s extended summer possession. Spring break, Christmas break, and Thanksgiving alternate by odd and even numbered years. There are alternative provisions for parents who live more than 100 miles apart and the Standard Possession Order isn’t nearly as popular during the first 3 years of a child’s life.
The program is broken down into several menus. First, you select a repeating cycle, which forms the basis of the parenting plan. Next, you overlay vacations and holidays that preempt the basic repeating cycle. When that is finished you can see stats on the time division, generate reports, or make journals.
I started entering in the Standard Possession Order, but I had some issues. Once, I hit the left arrow and realized the huge importance of saving everything. All the work I’d done in the custom schedule vanished. There are no autosave features or prompts about saving so save regularly. Also, the system of right and left clicking for adding and changing time is counter-intuitive. The program also allows you to add third party time (time at school). The third party time is a handy feature, but I wished there was an easier way to copy down through the whole repeating cycle. Some of what I just mentioned is nitpicky, but remember, saving time is one of my goals here and little inconveniences like this add up to more and more time spent using the program. Nevertheless, I was able to create a clear and accurate repeating cycle. My main complaints come from the vacations and holiday sections.
Extended summer possession is difficult and confusing. To set up the summer vacation you make a mini repeating cycle that overlaps the regular repeating cycle during certain dates. You can overlap as many as four such repeating cycles. As I mentioned above, the non-custodial parent has unspecified extended possession time, available during any 30-day period in the summer, with notice by 4/1. There is no clear way to add this 30-day discretionary extended possession period. I ended up just inserting the without-notice provisions which sets the extended possession period at 7/1-7/31 with custodial parent getting one weekend during that time. The custodial parent also gets an additional weekend during the summer so that had to be added in as a separate vacation that runs throughout the summer, but not during July. If all that sounds confusing, that is because it is confusing. I do not know how the summer periods should be improved, but it took quite a while to input this situation. Still, when I look through the calendar everything seems to check out and I don’t really know how they could make something so inherently complicated that much simpler.
Spring break and Christmas break are also frustrating and time consuming, especially for a young child. There is a separate system with check boxes and date ranges for entering spring break. The problem is that the dates are different each year in Dallas/Fort Worth area school districts. The program anticipates spring break will be pegged to Easter and you can set the break a certain number of days before the holiday. Unfortunately our spring breaks do not seem to be pegged to Easter. I wanted a way to add “second full week in March” as spring break but instead I went through 16 years of picking out specific dates. There is a similar problem with Christmas. Each year Christmas vacation starts at a slightly different time. At least there “days before holiday” option worked reasonably well. I was left wishing for some kind of disclaimer option for these vacations. I know these dates will be reasonably accurate but I’m sure they will be off some years and I would hate for my clients to rely on them without looking at their orders.
Father’s day, mother’s day, and thanksgiving all worked well. The Standard Possession Order allows the parent without possession on a child’s birthday to take the child out for two hours on their birthday. There’s no accommodation for that so I left it as 3rd party time. It seems like that would be an easy fix.
The final product looked pretty good, but was probably innacurate in places. I liked that it gave a very specific break down of how much time each parent gets. I would have liked to try exporting the calendar to Excel, Outlook, and the various mobile OS platforms, but none of that was available in the trial version. I kept wishing there was a way to add advice that would consistently appear on a certain date instead of just a one-time special event. I don’t want to have to go through and paste it in for 18 years, but the inherent inaccuracies demand some kind of additional advice.
The “Parenting Provisions” (orders) did not look like they were ready to be filed with a court. Maybe they could be included as advice to clients, but that’s hardly worth the extra money they want for that feature. I generated a report on the parenting plan that is supposed to be used in mediation. Unfortunately, the trial version didn’t allow me to see a final PDF of the report. The document it did generate was extremely condensed and jumbled in places. I would have to go back and revise it considerably before I would put my name on it.
The journal provision seemed capable, but the trial software didn’t allow me to fully explore it. I assume I could get a license for my clients and have them email me program files that I could import into my program, for further analysis and reporting, but I have to assume all that because it is not entirely clear from the website. I think I could bill my clients as little as $47 for that ability but I can’t say for sure.
Though the calendar Custody X Change generates is a valuable product, it was not nearly as fast as I wanted it to be. I would say the Standard Possession Order took at least three hours to complete. Still, I can now go back and modify it slightly and save it for different clients. Swapping parents and holiday provisions is actually quite easy. It looks as though, at least for the Standard Possession Order, I have already done the heavy lifting and future calendars should be quick and easy to generate.
If I had to rate the whole product I would probably give it 7 out of 10. It seems to be the most professional product on the market and it does at least something for every one of my needs. On the other hand, I have real complaints about every one of the solutions it offers. It takes too long to enter a complex parenting plan. The calendar it generates could be more accurate, or could at least offer opportunities for advice and explanation. The journal keeping feature sounds effective, but I have no way to evaluate that in the trial version. The highlight is definitely the calendar it generates. The calendar is close to what I want and it is not hard to run it out for the entire time child is under 18. The time division stats are also helpful. The vacation, spring break, and Christmas break provisions have obvious room for improvement, but are still adequate. The downfall is definitely the orders and documents the program generates. They are not up to snuff for a Texas Family Law court. I can comfortably recommend getting the “Lite” version. Most all of the features of that program were good or adequate. It certainly looks more professional than any similar product I’ve seen. I cannot recommend the “Full” version. I did not appreciate those features and I wasn’t able to adequately evaluate the journal keeping feature. Also, there are several other website and applications that duplicate the journal keeping functionality.